Netflix’s Tallulah shines thanks to its talented cast and insight into being a mother
It is not often you sit back to enjoy a film or TV show and be confronted with not one, not two, but three depictions of the negative side of motherhood. The three women (Ellen Page, Allison Janney, Tammy Blanchard) portrayed in the Sundance film Tallulah (available now on Netflix) are not altogether horrid people, in fact quite far from it. They all, though, share the traits of mothers who are a long way off being fully-focused on their maternal roles, and all demonstrate in varying non-literal ways the ability to abandon a child.
The mothers in question: one more casually distracted than all-out neglectful, one incorporating the role out of desperate and misplaced necessity, and one who perhaps accepts her grown-up child does not need her anymore. All at fault, all misunderstood, but all provide compelling enough characters and the prospect of redemption to see the journey through to the end.
Following a couple of short films (including the Cannes Film Festival selected Mother) and writing credits for Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black, Sian Heder writes and directs her first feature film here – essentially a three-fold drama depiction of the darker side of motherhood. Heder herself was heavily pregnant when the production began with her second child, so who knows how much of her hormones shone through in her directorial execution. Whatever the influence and inspiration, Tallulah is certainly not at all hurt by the woman’s touch. In fact, the rather sporadic and volatile bonds the three women share among themselves is awkwardly intriguing as it is sedately emotive. Is that good or bad?
Tallulah is surprisingly low-key on the emotional scale, giving little exploration into the way these characters roll off each other in somewhat knock-on fashion. Many audience members might see this as a flaw, but I suspect many of those watching have not taken into consideration that Heder is more interested in the motherly dynamic than wanting to make your heart strings tremor. There are moments here, but it is not all soppy and sentimental. The story’s arc is based on people treating each other quite badly with little thought for consequences. It is about trying hard to make things work whether or not another human being is in your way. It is also about making the slow realization to open your reclusive heart as well as your front door to strangers.
With three very different women brought together, it is the audience that is given free reign to make judgments on them and their often detrimental choices. And that happens. At one point I said out loud that the character of Tallulah is just despicable, only for her to moments later break down in the self-awareness of the potentially cruel thing she was about to do. Even I felt a sprinkle of guilt. Your opinions of these people alter, as do the very elements of trust and guardianship these women give to their respective life colleagues. Therein lies a few rough edges and narrative dents. At times it is hard to wonder why you would be entertained by such events, but more so that there appears to be some shifts in character hard to swallow, and it can be distracting. One such character is hard-nosed, bitter, and stubborn on her introduction, but within an hour of liaising with the enigmatic Tallulah (who is a bad apple on the outskirts) she appears to soften quicker than butter. I could have interpreted this as the walls thankfully crashing down from her lonely lifestyle, but I was not quite sure in all.
A film with ample themes of human interest, and a fair-to-good degree of story-telling magnetism, it is the actresses that stand out here. Orange Is the New Black‘s very own Uzo Aduba has an impressive cameo, suited up and playing a detective. Ellen Page, who appears to have been somewhat silenced by the film industry of late, is fine. We have missed her spitball on-screen attitude, and she carries with her a real sense of baggage and balls that make her perfect for Tallulah.
And then there is Allison Janney, who in all honestly tends to be first-rate in her sleep, but you don’t need me to tell you that. Janney rolls with the punches seamlessly as the apartment-clad mother and wife living a life on pause. Meanwhile it is Tammy Blanchard who gulps up the majority of the film’s emotional gravity. Her initially clueless mother grows with the frantic expressions from the heart – instigating a true bond of motherhood stretched too far.